Overdosing on Extremism
According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control, drug overdoses have increased almost six-fold in the last 30 years. They now represent the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, having overtaken motor vehicle accidents for the first time on record.
One might expect such news to spur politicians to explore new options for drug abuse treatment, prevention and enforcement. Instead, at precisely the wrong time, extremists on both sides have taken over the conversation. Unless we change the tone of the debate to give drug-policy centrists a voice, America’s drug problem will only get worse.
Indeed, moderates have historically been key contributors to both the debate and the practice of effective drug policy. In 1914, Representative Francis B. Harrison, a New York Democrat, worked with Republicans and President Woodrow Wilson to pass the first major piece of federal anti-drug legislation, in response to a surge in heroin and cocaine use.
Other moderates, from Theodore Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy, made drug policy an important part of their domestic agendas. President Bill Clinton worked closely with Bob Dole, the Republican Senate majority leader, on sensible measures like drug courts and community policing. And Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is the reason there is a drug czar in the first place, having pushed the idea for years before President Ronald Reagan approved it.
So where are the moderates now? Certainly, the current political climate makes it hard to come together on any question. Republicans are too timid to touch any domestic policy issue, like effective drug prevention and treatment, that might appear to cost taxpayers more money. And too many Democrats have yet to recognize that drugs are an issue that they and their constituents should care deeply about: after all, drug abuse and its consequences affect the most vulnerable in society in especially harmful ways.
In their place, a few tough-on-crime conservatives and die-hard libertarians dominate news coverage and make it appear as if legalizing drugs and “enforcement only” strategies were the only options, despite the fact that the public supports neither.
This stalemate comes just as a new range of cost-effective, evidence-based approaches to prevention, treatment and the criminal justice system are within our reach. We know much more about addiction than we did 20 years ago; with enough support, we could pursue promising medications and behavioral therapies, even a possible vaccine against some drug addictions.
Meanwhile, smart, innovative law enforcement strategies that employ carrots and sticks — treatment and drug testing complete with swift but modest consequences for continued drug use, or incentives for abstinence — have produced impressive results, through drug courts or closely supervised probation programs.
And drug prevention has moved from a didactic classroom exercise to a science of teaching life skills and changing environmental norms based on local data and community capacity. We now know that recovery from addiction is possible, and that policies that give former addicts a second chance are in everyone’s interest.
Most recently, Gil Kerlikowske, President Obama’s top drug policy adviser, introduced a sensible four-point plan to curb prescription drug abuse: educate prescribers, parents and young people about the dangers of overdose; shut down illegitimate “clinics” that freely sell these drugs; establish electronic monitoring at pharmacies; and encourage the proper disposal of unused medications. Yet his plan received little attention from the news media or Capitol Hill.
Of course, there is no magic bullet for America’s drug problem. The magnitude and complexity of our drug problem require us to constantly refine and improve our policies through thoughtful analysis, innovation and discussion.
Moderates should lead that conversation. To remain silent not only betrays widely shared values of compassion and justice for the most vulnerable. It also leaves policy in the hands of extremists who would relegate a very serious and consequential discussion to frivolous and dangerous quarters.
Kevin A. Sabet, a drug-policy consultant, was a senior adviser in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2011.